Castells rehearses the argument that the invention of the alphabet brought about a revolution in communication that laid the foundation for the accumulation of information in later times:
"Around 700 BC a major invention took place in Greece: the alphabet. This
conceptual technology, it has been argued by leading classics scholars such as
Havelock, was the foundation for the development of Western philosophy and
science as we know it today. It made it possible to bridge the gap from spoken
tongue to language, thus separating the spoken from the speaker, and making
possible conceptual discourse. This historical turning point was prepared for
by about 3,000 years of evolution in oral tradition and nonalphabetic
communication, until Greek society reached what Havelock calls a new state of
...that prompted the qualitative transformation of human communication (Eric A. Havelock).
Widespread literacy did not occur until many centuries later, after the invention and diffusion of the printing press and the manufacturing of paper.
Yet it was the alphabet that, in the West, provided the mental infrastructure for cumulative, knowledge-based communication. However, the new alphabetic order, while allowing rational discourse, separated written communication from the audiovisual system of symbols and perceptions, so critical for the full-fledged expression of the human mind.
By implicitly and explicitly establishing a social hierarchy between literate culture and audiovisual expression, the price paid for the foundation of human practice in the written discourse was to relegate the world of sounds and images to the backstage of the arts, dealing with the private domain of emotions and with the public world of liturgy. Of course, audiovisual culture took an historical revenge in the twentieth century, first with film and radio, then with television, overwhelming the influence of written communication in the hearts and souls of most people. Indeed, this tension between noble, alphabetic communication and sensorial, nonreflective communication underlies the intellectuals' frustration against the influence of television that still dominates the social critique of mass media (Postman 1985)." (Castells 1996: 326f.)
The development of the individual letters of the alphabet from North Semitic to Modern capitals can be seen in the following table:
David Diringer, Writing (London 1962).
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963).
Eric A. Havelock, The literate revolution in Greece and its cultural consequences (Princeton, N.J., 1982).
J.T. Hooker (ed.), Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet (London 1990).
The Greek alphabet, by way of contrast, is here introduced, when it impinges on the Greek scene, as a piece of explosive technology, revolutionary in its effects on human culture, in a way not precisely shared by any other invention. Uniqueness is claimed for it in the fact that, while emerging from a process of experimentation which covered perhaps three previous millennia, it constituted the terminus of the process. Once invented, it supplied the complete answer to a problem, and there has never been need to reinvent it.
The Roman and Cyrillic variants are just that, and no more. The problem had been to devise a system of 'shapes' (as the Greeks properly called them) of required small sizes, with maximum economy, (so far, the Phoenician achievement) such as would, despite the economy, when seen (or as we say, 'read') in endless variety of linear arrangements automatically trigger an acoustic memory of the complete spoken speech indexed by the shapes. The Greek device, because of its success in solving the last stage of the problem, brought into existence what we call 'literature' in the modern, i.e. postalphabetic. It can even be argued that the device furnished a necessary conceptual foundation on which to build the structures of the modern sciences and philosophies.